Jubilee, Strikingly Different
In parts, the series is a well-designed mixture of fact and fiction
I like Vikram Motwane’s direction and choice of subjects. ‘Udaan’ is an ideal example followed by ‘Lootera’. Motwane can be as sharp and incisive as he can be subtle and low-key. ‘Trapped’ was so bold and so good that in some strange way, it permeated the feeling of being cloistered and trapped from the protagonist to the audience.
If these three films are any indication, Motwane is certainly not interested in “happily ever after” stories. ‘Sacred Games’, however, brought Motwane into the mainstream with its electrifying dynamism, action and thrills. Though it was a long series for NETFLIX for an Indian series, it set the trend of success for Indian OTT series. It is the first Indian series on NETFLIX.
However, making a fictional film based on a real history is problematic. It mixes fact with fiction in a way that could hamper the history it is based on, and also, corrupt the fiction, to create a genre that does not yield very happy results. ‘Jubilee’ is said to be a tribute to the memory of Bombay Talkies.
Himansu Rai, the first Indian to launch co-productions between India and Germany – making Indian films with German finance, came to Mumbai when during World War II, Germany closed its doors to non-Germans. In 1934, Rai formed Bombay Talkies Limited, along with his beautiful, aristocratic and English educated wife Devika Rani.
They built a spacious studio under his personal supervision. He purchased the most modern equipment. In 1935, a stream of films came out of the Bombay Talkies production house. Franz Osten, a German, who had directed ‘The Light of Asia’ and ‘Karma’ earlier, joined the staff.
Bombay Talkies settled on a schedule of producing around three feature films in a year. Some like ‘Savitri’ (1937) were mythologicals while ‘Achhut Kanya’ (The Untouchable Girl) made in Hindi in 1936 had a strong statement of social relevance.
‘Jubilee’ on Amazon Prime is a fine blend of both history and fiction. Some characters like Sreekanto Roy (Prosenjeet) and Sumitra Kumari (Aditi Rao Hydari) are representations of Himansu Rai and Devika Rani. There is also the young, diffident and quiet Binod Das (Aparshakti Khurana), the quiet, faceless lab technician who most likely represents the real lab technician Kundanlal Ganguly who was forced to become Ashok Kumar in real life when Devika Rani ran away with the hero of the film they were then shooting.
In this film however, Binod is shown to be a cold-blooded and diabolic calculator who planned every move to become Madan Kumar, the matinee idol of Bombay Talkies films when Sumitra Devi is brought back to fold, and Jamshed Khan a la Madan Kumar (Nandish Singh Sandhu) dies in a communal fire apparently but is actually killed by Binod Das.
Poor Ashok Kumar and his family would have anyway died of shock had they been alive to see this celluloid destruction of the original hero who turned out to become the first big star of Bombay cinema – Ashok Kumar.
Tragically, Himanshu died in 1940 at the age of 48. Devika continued to run Bombay Talkies for another five years, until her marriage to painter Svetoslav Roerich, which saw her leave the film world for good.
The Dietze family archive which had plenty of archival material on Bombay Talkies contains no material post 1945, but the studio continued under various directors until its closure in 1954. Some say it was suicide which ‘Jubilee’ endorses by replicating the suicide by Guru Dutt many years later. But there were strong rumours that he was probably killed which was neither followed nor proved.
This part of the series is a well-designed mixture of fact and fiction. But the parallel story of the ambitious refugee-cum-dreamer Jay (Siddhant Gupta) and the one-time courtesan Neelofar (Wamiqa Gabbi) is more credible and interesting and the two actors sparkle in every scene they appear in. The subtle but omnipresent conflict in the husband-wife relationship between Sreekanto Roy and his wife Sumitra Devi, a famous actress who also was a partner in Bombay Talkies, comes across subtly yet clearly minus melodrama.
With so many complications in the complex script spilling over with characters, settings, the refugee camp where incredibly, a film studio comes up and where Jay lives with ultimately, also goes down. There are the varied journeys Neelofar is forced to take on, with her ‘business’ going down. She is perhaps the liveliest and the most dynamic character, who is only to be let down in the end.
Siddhant as Jay is the other star performer. He believes in his dreams of turning a filmmaker and is not afraid of challenging the owner of Roy Talkies or anyone else. everyone seems to be either jealous of him or contemptuous, except the financier Shamsher Singh Walia (a wonderful performance by Ram Kapoor).
Walia supports Jay when he wants to make a film independently with himself in the lead and his lady love Neelofar as his leading lady. His film ‘Taxi Driver’ is a big hit and so is the romantic couple.
With more than a dozen characters of different sizes, shapes, natures and moods, Motwane had a tough job handling them all but he did it with elan and confidence. Prosenjit Chatterjee, the numero uno of Bengali cinema for more than three decades, excels in his debut OTT performance and that too, in Hindi.
Chatterjee has portrayed Sreekanto Roy so well that it will remain one of his most outstanding performances in his entire career. His English and Hindi are impeccable but when he speaks in English, for some strange reason, at times, he seems to chew his dialogues which goes against his cool, calculating and sophisticated, arrogant character.
He plays the head of the grand Roy Talkies with film entrepreneurs from the USSR and the US vying to get his films for distribution and exhibition in their respective countries through co-production. But these are cancelled with Roy’s tragic death following which the Bombay film industry came to a halt for some time.
Aditi Roy Hyderi as Sumitra Devi is beautiful, elegant and sophisticated. She has a derogatory attitude towards Binod Das. He has cleverly placed himself as the new Madan Kumar.
With the footage and the importance she has been given, Hyderi could have performed better. Aparshakti Khurana as Binod Das is good but no one knows why he always acts with a deadpan expression on his face.
Shweta Basu Prasad as his homely wife hardly has a role to be proud of. Why they have to leave in a dilapidated rickshaw remains a mystery. Whatever happened to the money Binod Das as Madan Kumar earned for his work in films?
Arun Govil’s return to the world of cinema is welcome as the constantly worried father of Jay. Jay is ambitious but has no clue how to fund his ambition and turn it to reality.
Alakananda Dasgupta’s muted and sometimes loud musical score on the soundtrack suits the periodicity the film is placed in while Amit Trivedi’s songs, including the one in which he appears himself are delightful enough to blend into the period scenario of the series.
The production design and the costumes are fabulous to say the least. Creating the “period” feel in cities like Lucknow, Calcutta and Bombay takes us back to those days when there were hardly any crowds on the streets, where people were simple and crowded the single screen theatres with large billboards, to watch films.
The editing is sometimes jerky, but one feels that that is exactly what the script demanded as the narrative moves back and forth not only in terms of time but also in terms of space and the evolution of the major characters.
They characters move out of their success/failure zones back to success/failure partly due to the changes in the political history of the country that became Independent in 1947. The characters had no clue about which turn their lives were about to take.
There are factual bloomers and one has no idea whether they were put there deliberately without reference to history remains a mystery. One of them is about Sreekant Roy thinking of introducing playback in films. In reality, playback was first introduced in films by Nitin Bose in ‘Bhagyachakra’ (1935) followed by his own Hindi ‘Dhoopchhaon’.
The other bloomer is about Sreekant Roy suggesting introducing cinemascope in cinema. But in reality, the first film to be cinematographed and projected through cinemascope was Guru Dutt’s ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’ in 1959.
The profuse use of sepia tones for the scenes in the corridors of the studio, using grained grayscale, natural colours with low saturation levels and so on invests the film with a touch of authenticity and captures the timescapes the ‘Junilee’ spans. The production statistics of the 1940s tell the story of the decline and fall of the one-big-family studio.
The decline was paralleled by the rise of the independent producer, who used a rented studio and free-lance talent. The new producer could be a complete outsider or a star or director who had found a backer. Many studio-owners, renting his studios to these new producers, gradually became dependent on them, helping to entrench the new system and destroy the old.
‘Jubilee’ is a sad series but not a dark one. It is sad because all the stories have a sad ending. The best part of watching such a series on Amazon Prime lies in the bonus trivia and snippets, which gives an insight into the pains the team took to give the series the right “texture” it demands. Good work Motwane and team. Keep it up.